Mojave Confidential: What Will Virgin’s Customers See in the High Desert Next Month?

Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

I wandered over to the Mojave Air and Space Port on Tuesday afternoon for the spaceport’s Board of Directors’ meeting to discover it had been canceled due to a lack of sufficient business to put on the agenda. That was the official explanation, anyway. I think everyone is just on vacation, which is a smart move at this time of year.

But, that doesn’t mean that nothing is going on. Oh, things are happening, all right. Big, mysterious things. I went back to my car, cranked the AC to 11, and drove around America’s first inland spaceport to check out what was going on.

I saw considerable activity at the Pool Building over on Poole Street (no relation). Workers were busy constructing an addition and completing a series of interior renovations. The goal is to meet a Sept. 15 deadline for opening the new community building, which the airport is overhauling at an estimated cost of nearly $2 million.

The deadline is driven by Virgin Galactic, which has invited its 600 plus millionauts to the spaceport 10 days later to get a close-up look at their ride into space. Or something. All I really know is some part of it involves use of the Pool Building. And that it is possible Sir Richard Branson will once again grace Mojave with his presence and toothy grin.

The Pool Building on Poole Street (no relation). Credit: Douglas Messier
The Pool Building on Poole Street (no relation). Credit: Douglas Messier

Branson doesn’t come out to Mojave all that very often, and he invites his future astronauts here even less frequently. In July 2008, he flew a group of them in for the roll out of WhiteKnightTwo. The following December, they were here to witness the roll out of SpaceShipTwo.

So, what could be planned this time? The details of the event appear to be a closely guarded secret. But, I can venture a few guesses.

Powered SpaceShipTwo Flight Test

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

A powered flight would be a spectacular event for customers to see, and a way for Branson to demonstrate real progress toward commercial flight. That alone would make the trip worthwhile. There are a couple of potential problems, however.

First, there’s a question of whether SpaceShipTwo will be back in powered flight by then. The April 29 flight was to have been the first in a series of tests leading to a flight into space by the end of the year. Officials hoped to resume powered flights in early to mid-June. They expected SpaceShipTwo to be deep into its test flight program by the time everyone gathered in Mojave at the end of September.

That clearly hasn’t happened. In the nearly 15 weeks that have followed, prime contractor Scaled Composites has managed two SpaceShipTwo glide flights, both of which appear to have been to train Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay. It’s unclear when powered flights will begin again.

There’s a more fundamental issue with bringing clients out to watch Scaled light the candle on SpaceShipTwo. That is, it would be a flight test. Those are not to be taken lightly. There is always the possibility that something will go seriously wrong. So, does Virgin really want to risk having its passengers, who have been given numerous assurances about SpaceShipTwo’s safety, see something potentially disturbing?

Glide Flight

These are cool things to see, and the risk is much lower. But, this would be a step backwards given the powered flight that occurred back in April. It would raise more questions than it would answer about how things are progressing.

Engine Test

RocketMotorTwo kicks up some dust during a hot fire on March 30, 2013. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
RocketMotorTwo kicks up some dust during a hot fire on March 30, 2013. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

This would probably be worth the price of coming out here, but it has the same basic risk as the powered flight: it had better work, or the whole exercise could backfire in the worst possible way.

Less than three weeks after SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight, Scaled Composites blew up an engine on the test stand. The nitrous oxide tank burst, the test stand was wrecked, and the rocket motor casing and nozzle went sent flying off across the desert. According to Scaled, this was all part of a plan to test the fuel grain to destruction using an experimental, non-flight engine in order to gather valuable data about failure modes.

I was skeptical of this explanation when they came out with it, a full three days after the May 17 test. Everything I’ve heard and seen about the incident since that day has only deepened my doubts. Suffice to say, if it was not the intentional destruction of a non-flight engine, then this project is in much worse shape than I thought.

Meanwhile, rumors of continued problems with the propulsion system persist. The latest are that the engine in its flight configuration hasn’t been fired to full duration, and that it lacks sufficient power to get SpaceShipTwo all the way to space with any sort of payload.

Mark Sirangelo of the Sierra Nevada Corporation, which builds the engine, denied that to me when I asked about it during the NewSpace 2013 conference two weeks ago. But, the stories are persistent and my sources have been accurate in the past. Until I hear and see otherwise, my doubts will remain.

Virgin Galactic could put these rumors to rest by releasing a video of a full-scale, full-duration engine hot fire that outside propulsion experts would be able to easily evaluate for performance. As near as I can tell, we haven’t seen one of those since the initial engine tests four years ago.

Interior Layout Unveiled

 Sir Richard Branson and daughter, Holly, look through the window of a SpaceShipTwo shell. (Photo credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson and daughter, Holly, look through the window of a SpaceShipTwo shell. (Photo credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

Virgin might take the occasion to unveil a full mockup layout of the passenger cabin. And it would be something they could do inside the Pool Building over on Poole Street (no relation). Maybe they’ll dress up the customers in spacesuits and have them sit inside the cabin for pictures.

It would be fun, but would that alone really be worth trekking out to the High Desert? Maybe.

Keeping the Customers Happy

One of the intriguing aspects of this entire enterprise revolves around how patient Virgin’s customers will continue to be as things move along. Some of them have been waiting for eight years to fly, and their frustrations with the delays and Branson’s unrealistic assurances (flights are always 18 months away) have occasionally boiled over in the press.

Virgin has done its best to keep them happy, inviting them to special events and creating a feeling they are part of an elite club that forms the vanguard of a new space age. The Virgin Group aggressively cross sells its other properties and services to this captive group of high net worth individuals.

Late last year, Branson entertained two groups of his future millionauts over two weeks at his private retreat on Necker Island. Customers were given numerous assurances about SpaceShipTwo amidst all the merriment and displays of immense wealth. The customers went away happy, and Branson made a small fortune (a week on Necker is pricey with a capital “P”).

By the time everyone gathers in Mojave at the end of September, another 10 months will have passed, and all the reassurances will likely have proven somewhat hollow. Other than having an abundance of sand and sun, Mojave is about as far away from Necker Island as you can get. The town is not exactly a destination spot.

Virgin will need to show its customers something really interesting and demonstrate some real progress on getting SpaceShipTwo into commercial flight to justify the trip out here. If all they can point to is one powered flight five months earlier and yet more assurances that all is well, that probably won’t do it.

  • Richard

    Do you really suspect that the rocket that destroyed itself wasn’t supposed to happen like that? I was a bit disturbed when you mentioned that the NOs tank had split, surely if it as a test of safety systems that should never happen, as there would be very little for a safety system to recover should that happen inside SS2. Also a little concerned that there hasn’t been a single rocket test, on or off SS2 since, possibly implies that they are working out a big problem. I get the feeling we won’t be seeing this thing commercially fly until Christmas 2014 at the earliest. Will be a real shame I’ve been following it with great anticipation for about 9 years now 🙁

  • dr

    Doug Messier,
    A few months ago, you made the claim that VG were / are testing alternative rocket engines to RM2. These may be for SS2 or LauncherOne.
    Do you have any update on the progress, if any, of those tests?

  • Douglas Messier

    There were static tests of alternative hybrid engines conducted in December and January at a separate test stand in Mojave. This is a different test stand from the one on which Scaled conducts tests of the RocketMotorTwo engines. I witnessed both of these tests.

    The first hot fire was of an engine built by Whittinghill Aerospace. The motor was positioned with the nozzle facing up; the exhaust went directly up into the sky. If memory serves, the test lasted no more than 30 seconds.

    The second engine was built by a different company whose name I don’t know. The setup was the same, with the exhaust going up into the sky. From what I could see, the firing went fine at first, but then they had trouble shutting it off. It continued to burn long after it was supposed to have shut off, sending black smoke into the sky over the test area.

    Airport officials considered about sending the fire units in to foam the engine down while it was still burning. They decided against it, electing to hold off until the last of the nitrous oxide in the fuel tank was burned off. This appears to have been the right call. The test personnel were all safe and accounted for inside a bunker, so risking first responders made little sense.

    I’m not sure what has happened with these engines since January. I’ve not heard of any subsequent tests using them, but it’s possible there have been ones I don’t know about that have been conducted either in Mojave or elsewhere.

    As for liquid propulsion, I know that Virgin is working on developing such a system at a third test stand in Mojave. As of the April-May time frame, they were working on short firings of a 3,500 lb. thrust engine. I have seen short tests of it.

    As near as I know, this engine is intended for use on LauncherOne, which won’t be in service for several years. However, Virgin officials are on record as saying they eventually plan to replace the hybrid system — whose solid core must be changed out after each flight — with a reusable liquid one. I had originally believed the liquid system was running parallel with development of the hybrid engine, but I now believe I was wrong.

  • Douglas Messier

    My initial understanding was that they didn’t intend to blow up the engine (i.e., test the fuel grain to destruction). My sources indicate that the folks who would normally have been notified of such an intention (get ready, we’re blowing this thing up real good!) don’t seem to have been informed in advance.

    After Scaled published the test log on their website three days later, I thought, OK, maybe they were testing an off-nominal, non-flight engine and got a surprise (Holy expletive! We didn’t expect THAT to happen!) But, the information I’ve gotten since casts serious doubt on that theory.

    As for how this affects future powered flights, I’m not entirely sure. It’s possible the delay in resuming powered flights is unrelated to the ground test, but instead is connected to something that happened in flight. We’ll see.

  • dr

    Thanks very much for this thorough response.

  • Richard

    Thanks Doug, as normal a great reply. It’s good to get insights as to what is actually happening, I can only hope that the people who have signed up to VG for a ride are getting the full story. So far two explosions (one fatal) out of about 30 tests doesn’t look like good odds to me. After that track record I’d want to see a hundred or so faultless ones before I got on-board!

    I hope you got to the total with your fund raising, I managed to help you out a little on the way :o) would hate to see the site have to shut down, its on my daily list of places to have a look at.

  • Nickolai

    Richard, I think the fatal explosion from a few years ago was not an engine test. It was a coldflow test, and for whatever reason there was an explosion in a nitrogen tank or something. It was one of those tragic things in which the test itself was fairly routine, but tragedy struck. That being said, I think the systems involved in that accident were not flight systems.

  • jazzfiend

    I am sure that Virgin Galactic will have an impressive display, but maybe XCOR will too. I am hoping there will be a Lynx doing runway hops as well as whatever Virgin Galactic has planned.

  • Douglas Messier

    Nickolai is right, the 2007 explosion was a cold flow test involving nitrous oxide. These were not flight systems, but that’s not really the issue here.

    Last year, an international group of experts with knowledge of and experience with nitrous oxide shed some light on the accident. They got Cal-OSHA to finally release the investigative report on the accident. Members of the group say it took two years to get them to do this.

    The group also published an analysis of the investigation, the accident, Scaled Composite’s subsequent explanations, and Virgin Galactic’s safety claims.

    If you want to take a look, they are published here:

    I can briefly summarize:

    From the CalOsha Report

    Scaled allowed about a dozen workers to stand near the test rig, some behind a chain link fence, while the people actually running the test were behind an earthen berm a safe distance away.

    There was confusion over who was actually in charge of safety that day. You see this in reading the investigators’ handwritten notes of their interviews with Scaled officials.

    From the Group’s Analysis

    Scaled claimed that there was nothing in the body of knowledge concerning nitrous oxide that would indicate it could explode that way.

    The group calls this claim evidence of a failure to do due diligence or a willful disregard for the truth. It presents evidence to back up this statement.

    The group has no faith in Virgin’s safety claims about the safety of the hybrid rocket system.

    Read it for yourself. Then let me know what you think.

  • Richard

    Thanks Doug, I have read through the report, well the report on the report. It does show a lack of understanding of the nature of the N2O that they are using. It seems thought that even if Scaled were negligent in their understanding, that handing everything over to Sierra Nevada for the development of the rocket from then on has been the right choice, as they do seem to understand the risks involved much better.

    The health and safety that was shown was terrible, knowing that you had to be in a bunker for the tests and then allowing people to stand next to it behind a fence is inexcusable. However they would have learnt heavily from this and hopefully this will be part of the reason that they have been so cautious and slow in the flight development program ever since.

    So the things that caused the fatalities on that day I’m sure will have been mitigated, however it doesn’t answer the issues around the fact that the hybrid rocket motor oxidiser in use is not stable or benign. I’m sure rubber is, you can do pretty much anything to that! But anything that can have pressures in the region of 700psi and is potentially explosive if shown temperatures over 100F is absolutely nothing like benign. Its a bomb that hasn’t gone off yet. Getting something like that and then putting it next to a controlled fire that is burning at thousands of degrees, in a plane where even a rupture of the tank at that pressure could rip off a wing, to describe it as benign is just a joke. From a marketing perspective I would be worried about the legality of making such a suggestion to people who are possibly booking a ticket.

    That not to say that it can’t be handled safely and in ways that don’t pose a threat to life, but the marketing doesn’t match reality.

    I knew that the test was a cold flow, didn’t know that it wasn’t a flight spec oxidiser tank though. Whichever way though I suppose my point is that we have only had say 50 experiments (cold flow, hot fire, etc) involving the ‘benign’ rocket system. Two of those have resulted in unexpected outcomes that would have completely destroyed SS2 in flight and killed everyone on-board. I personally would not be happy with a 1 in 25 chance of being killed. It appears that these are the current odds, would you be happy with that?

  • Carolynne Campbell

    If your readers would like to get a more in-depth understanding, I would refer them to this article in Space Safety Magazine. The publishers are very careful and insist on thorough peer-review, so it’s not just ‘opinion’:

  • Richard

    Thanks Carolynne, that’s a really informative article.

  • Carolynne Campbell

    And now for the bombshell: More than one eye-witness to the fatal accident has told me that Glen May, Todd Ivens and Eric Blackwell (who were all killed) were inside the perimeter when the explosion happened. That does not gel with the Cal/OSHA report.
    No Coroner’s Inquest was ever held.

  • Douglas Messier

    There is one other scenario that was suggested to me the other day: It was indeed an experimental engine using a different fuel grain. They got a hard start, which caused the explosion.

    If this is true, it fits into a pattern relating to the alternative engine tests I witnessed back in December and January. Multiple efforts going on to find an alternative to the hybrid they’ve been flying with. And that fits the stories I’ve been hearing that the hybrid they’re using doesn’t have the performance they need to get SS2 into space.

    This doesn’t mesh very well with what they’re say publicly. Yes, we’ll be in space by the end of the year and flying commercial by mid-2014. That’s less than a year, so why are they testing alternative engines at this point.

  • Richard

    Do you remember that about a year ago they said they would be flying with an underpowered ‘starter’ engine for the first few powered flights, do you think that’s what they are now calling their current engine ;o)
    The “into space by the end of the year” could still be achievable even if the hybrid is not performing with enough power as there is quite a bit less load without 600kg of passengers on-board (Not to mention the cabin or seats). But as for the commercial flights after that, then passengers are somewhat required for those! It’s certainly concerning that we haven’t seen full duration engine burns for, well, years.
    At least if they were testing an alternative engine that went bang it does allay some of the fears about the current production engine.
    What we really need is an engineer from inside VG to come on the discussions here and anonymously let us know what’s really happening, then we wouldn’t have to speculate.

  • patb2009


  • patb2009